Alsace Rocks

Alsace: Deliciously Simple, Intriguingly Complex

By David Lawrason

WineAlign has been commissioned by the Alsace Wines Committee to present a Passport to Alsace mixed case of wines available in Ontario, most not seen before at the LCBO. The WineAlign team sat down with the wines in early September, selected the six from different producers and posted full reviews on WineAlign. Don’t forget to register for A Virtual Journey Through Alsace with David Lawrason and Sara d’Amato as they taste and talk about each of the six wines in the case (October 24 at 5pm).

The wonderful thing about Alsace, the region and its wines, is that it can be as simple as you want to make it, or as complex as any wine region on the planet for those who want to drill down.

Let’s start simply with what’s in your glass. The vast majority of Alsatian wines are whites with a basic profile of rich, fruity and dry to maybe off-dry. By and large they are not zesty, quenching summer whites; nor are they sugary. They are richer, softer autumn or even winter whites. They are not aged in new oak so the grape or varietal expression is paramount. They are wines for fruit lovers. They are nuanced, comforting and gastronomic.

They are simple also in the labeling. There are only two tiers – Alsace or Alsace Grand Cru. And the grape variety, unlike in other French regions, is clearly stated on the label. It is not that difficult to learn the expression of seven different grapes that grow here, especially in Ontario and BC where we are already familiar with riesling, pinot gris and gewurztraminer – the three most important Alsatian varieties.

The geographic simplicity is that Alsace is a northern, cool climate region at 48 degrees latitude, with a shorter growing season preserving good acidity. But the anomaly is that its summers and falls are warm because it lies in a rain shadow of the Vosges Mountains, allowing grapes to fully ripen with high sugar levels, which subsequently allows the creation of riper, high alcohol wines while maintaining acid balance.

So, let’s switch for a moment to the more complex and fascinating view of Alsace.

In June 2019 I hiked with five buddies for a week in Alsace, an experience I highly recommend for avid trekkers. I am avid but rather soft in my later years, and found it challenging to be going up and down day after day, from about 200 metres altitude in the base villages to 400 metres in the vineyards to 600 metres in the forests of the Vosges Mountains.  Especially at the onset of a 40C heat wave on our first day.  (Some of the photos accompanying this article were taken on this trip by a good friend and pro photographer Ben Champoux of Moncton, New Brunswick)

It was a magical week regardless, gratifying to be so up close and personal with the Alsatian vineyard. To feel its topography in my legs and lungs. To be constantly mesmerized by the grandeur of its vistas above gingerbread villages and outlooks over the Rhine Valley. To understand up close the variations in aspect, degree of slope and geology that create such diversity in the wines. To taste so many outstanding wines every day, both in the winery tasting rooms of Trimbach, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Domaine Weinbach and Schlumberger, and in the region’s plethora of great restaurants.

Alsace has the most integrated food and wine culture of any region I have experienced. The Alsatians have fully embraced the fact that the combination of seven authorized grape varieties growing in an impossible array of vineyards of different aspect and geology has created a matrix of food pairing possibilities that boggles the mind.  I will never forget a tasting at Domaine Weinbach, where my host immediately equated the wine from each grand cru vineyard with a certain dish, no matter the grape variety.

Alsace has several historic and famous wineries like Domaine Weinbach that are known in Canada. Those mentioned above plus wineries like Hugel, Pierre Sparr, Muré, André Blanck and Zinck are also well-known. But it is interesting to note that almost all of them, except for the many co-operative wineries, are fairly small, family owned, and very often multi-generational. This goes to the vine-growing history and culture of hundreds if not thousands of small family vineyard plots being divided among successive generations, creating a patchwork mosaic visible to the human eye.

The fact there are seven authorized grape varieties in Alsace also contributes to that mosaic. Four of them are considered “noble” – a French terminology and idea I have always struggled with personally – but it underpins some regulation. The four nobles are riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris and muscat. The other three are pinot blanc, sylvaner and pinot noir (but I don’t like them any less, and they can be less expensive).

You then take these varieties and array them across different landscapes and soil types, some doing better in certain terroir conditions. This underlies the “grand cru” appellation concept. There are 51 vineyards with grand cru standing, and only certain grape varieties qualify in each vineyard, for the most part just the previously mentioned noble varieties.

But there is no question that the Grand Crus are the pinnacle for each of the varieties, and most importantly for consumers in Ontario, they are still fantastic value, when you can find them.  The Grand Crus of Burgundy, based on the same concept, are nosebleed priced and barely visible or available.  You can get superb Grand Cru Alsatian wines for under $50, even under $30 on occasion.  And that is not about lesser quality in your glass.

The French hold age-ability or the concept of “vin de garde’ as a measure of quality – when balance, written by acidity, is in place to allow long and graceful ageing.  White wines are not generally considered in this light but many of France’s best whites do age sublimely – be they from Bordeaux, Burgundy or Alsace too.

This was brought home when we were treated to a brilliant tasting of old wines at The Confrérie Saint Etienne d’Alsace, a museum and wine library, in the gorgeous village of Kientzheim. The cellar master is David Ling, a bubbly Brit who has lived most of his life in Alsace since following his heart to a woman and Alsatian wine. He presented our trekkers with six wines that would be considered very long in the tooth. They included a 2013 Sylvaner, a 2005 Pinot Gris, a 1997 Pinot Blanc, a 1983 Riesling and a 1967 Gewurztraminer (see photo). It was a seminal experience. I am not suggesting that every Alsatian white you try will live this long or rise to these heights, but the region is capable of such great quality.

And we think you will begin to grasp that idea as you enjoy this fine WineAlign Passport to Alsace case.

Here are the six wines that will be in the Passport to Alsace mixed case. Two bottles of each of the six different wines will be included to make it a 12 pack of wine.

AOC Crémant d’Alsace 2016, “Blanc de Blancs Brut”, Domaine Jean-Marie Sohler

John Szabo, MS – Clean, fragrant, evolving, Sohler’s crémant 2016 offers a complex mix of fresh and candied citrus fruit, fresh wheat and hay, and other notes indicative of traditional method autolysis. The palate is replete with candied lemon and wheat flavours, dry, balanced, engaging and complex. Very good length. Quality bubbles.

AOC Alsace Sylvaner 2018 “Originel”, Famille Muré

Sara d’Amato – There is a notable elegance to this fresh but fulfilling sylvaner a characteristic tendency of this French/Germanic grape variety. Apple and pear with more apparent sweetness than the previous vintage due to level of ripeness. Highly drinkable, very well defined and a real classic.

AOC Alsace Pinot Blanc 2018, Trimbach F.E.

Michael Godel – Oh my, so forthright and drinkable is this pinot blanc from Trimbach ye hardly know you are drinking at all. Ripeness the virtue meets mineral the destiny for a varietal wine so clean, so fresh and so spot on that time stands Alsatian still. Mid-afternoon, a restaurant in Ribeauville, a recommended plate of cuisses de grenouille. Life affirmed through simple if serious pleasures.

AOC Alsace Riesling 2018 “Portrait”, Domaine Zinck

David Lawrason – This is a solid, zesty, taut dry riesling that delivers classic Alsatian character if in a particularly lean style. Many have more flesh. Expect lifted pear, petrol, spice and some herbal aromas. It is medium bodied (12.5%) dry and slightly pithy on the finish with a touch of spearmint. The length is very good to excellent.

AOC Alsace 2018 “Métiss”, Bott-Geyl

John Szabo, MS – A blend of Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Chasselas, biodynamically farmed and produced, this is lovely, fragrant floral wine with uncommon depth and amplitude, and a pinch of residual sugar to bring it into perfect balance. I love the salinity and the genuine flavour concentration. Frankly, I’d expect to pay a lot more for this quality. Pure, transparent, crystalline.

AOC Alsace Pinot Gris 2018 “ Pierres Sèches”, Famille Muré

Michael Godel – Quite unctuous pinot gris in the classic Alsace style in which some residual sugar is urged on by acidity with purposed equanimity. Begins in flinty smoulder, works through some terpenes, stone fruit and emerges into a world of candied lemon and pith. You can feel the barrel in that mild bitterness and in the creamy texture. A fulfilling wine with classicism coded in its DNA.